Interview: Speculative Fiction Author Duncan Ellis on NaNoWriMo Priorities, Plotting and Caffeine Consumption

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, and the bleary-eyed scribes who plan to hunker over their computers throughout November, today’s Seven Questions interview is with speculative fiction author Duncan Ellis.

Duncan Ellis is among the hundreds of thousands of NaNoWriMo participants, who are aiming to write a novel in the next 30 days, starting tomorrow.

Duncan has completed NaNoWriMo seven times, which means he has written seven manuscripts with full plot arcs, including a trilogy. The 2004 event enticed him to write fiction for the first time in 10 years, and he’s been writing ever since.

Duncan, a United Kingdom native, now resides in Portland, Oregon.

NaNoWriMo, founded in 1999, challenges writers to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days. Organizers expect more than 250,000 participants this year.

If you’re trying NaNo for the first time, Duncan recommends setting your home region on the NaNo website to make sure you are notified about local events. They often include a kick-off, regular public write-ins and an ending party. The other reason to set your region, Duncan explained, is because there’s rivalry between regions in terms of cumulative word count.

Welcome to Seven Questions, Duncan!

1. You started participating in NaNoWriMo in 2004. What initially sparked your interest, and why have you continued to write a novel every November?

I was already a roundly frustrated writer in 2004. I have always harboured an ambition to write, but at that point I hadn’t written any fiction in the best part of ten years. 2004 was also the year I completed a marathon, so I was energised and looking for another challenge. I was pretty doubtful about knocking out a novel in only a month, though.

Chris Baty (the NaNoWriMo founder) was on the speaking tour for his book “No Plot? No Problem!”and I thought I would go along and hear what he had to say. He’s a very engaging speaker, is Mr. Baty, and I left Powell’s completely sold on the idea of writing a novel.

I dusted off an old idea for a story that I had never got past chapter two with before, and blasted through the 50k in about three weeks. NaNoWriMo got me writing again.

I continue to participate mainly because this is the one time of the year when my writing comes first, and because high velocity novelling generates such compelling ideas!

My usual goal these days is something north of 70k, since I understand that the usual word count for a saleable novel is in the 70-80k range.

2. How do you plan to make writing a priority in the next 30 days, Duncan? When you do expect you’ll be doing the most writing, and do you have a daily word count goal?

The nominal word count goal for the 50,000 word target is 1,667 words a day. I usually try to write a minimum of 2k a day since I know there will be at least a few days when I will not write at all. That’s about two hours of writing for me, as long as I have the plot broadly set beforehand.

I write first thing in the morning before the family is moving around, at lunchtime, and on occasional special days during the month. In previous years that has been Saturday mornings; this year I have enough spare vacation time to be able to take most Wednesdays off work.

None of this would be possible without my wonderful wife. Fortunately she also happens to like to read what I write!

3. Have you found a sense of community around NaNoWriMo? Has that community enriched or changed how you view your own work?

NaNoWriMo has a vigorous online community which is great for providing support and procrastination opportunities. There are local chapters (so to speak) which are coordinated by a Municipal Liaison, or ML, and the word count for each participant is contributed towards the total for their region—I am always hoping that Portland will improve on its placing from the previous year, but it seems to come in tenth or eleventh in the world every year!

During NaNoWriMo there are many events to meet other writers at: the kick-off event, regular write-ins (including the midnight write-in on Halloween to get folks moving as the clock ticks over into November—hurray for 24-hour coffee shops!), and the TGIO party to celebrate the achievement.

I’ve made some good friends through NaNoWriMo, but I am not in any critique groups at the moment.

4. Tell us a little about your trilogy. You mentioned you wrote drafts of all three books during NaNo, then totally rewrote the first book in the series last November. What’s the status of that book now? And what’s it like taking a full story, written in a month, and turning it into a more fleshed out draft?

The original note I have for the story is that it is about a boy who becomes a king. The setting is a moon around a gas giant where human colonists have lost much of their technology—indeed, they have lived on this moon for so long that the very knowledge that they are colonists has been lost. As I was writing this story during NaNoWriMo I realised that it was a trilogy: the world was too big, and there was too much to say about it for just one book. It didn’t hurt that the story naturally fell into three parts.

Still, reading that first precis draft after its regulation six weeks in a drawer was revelatory: there was so much that I had written that I didn’t remember writing. There were rough spots aplenty, but the good bits were so juicy and fresh. The process of populating the rest of the story to match that juiciness is thrilling – almost terrifying.

Currently I have completed story arcs for all three books, and the first book is in roughly finished shape–an incomplete second draft, basically. The setting is pretty settled, and I am at the point of sharpening the narratives of the three main characters—trying to make it so that someone would actually care about the choices they make.

I will pick the draft up again in December and finish it next year.

5. Do you plot out your NaNo novels, and if so, to what degree? Do you know where each scene is going or do you plan a world and then begin writing?

I can’t write at five in the morning without some kind of plot to guide me!

I go into NaNo with descriptions for the main characters, chapter summaries, and some notes on the world I’m writing in. I usually have around 25 chapters planned, the goal being to write at least 2,000 words in each chapter (which means I try to write a chapter a day). Each chapter’s notes give a starting point, an ending point, the main characters involved, and notes on things that need to happen. I leave location and incidental characters loose.

The biggest problem with this approach is that I end up introducing a lot of incidental details which appear exactly once, but then this is also where the best inventions come—and these things can be smoothed over in the revision process.

6. I expect you’ll have some grueling writing days. How do you keep yourself fueled up and focused? Any tips for the NaNo newcomers?

Coffee. And tea. Lots of coffee and tea. Caffeinated beverages should account for somewhere between 96.9% and 97.3% of your fluids during November.

Actually, I drink a lot of water and exercise regularly otherwise I get awfully jittery. During November that means cycling to work more, since my usual lunchtime run is preempted by the writing. But it really does help to stay on the exercise.

For the writing itself, there are three basic rules I follow:

  • Never look back. You don’t have time to edit as well as write during November, regardless of your opinions of revision of a draft in progress.
  • Turn off the internet. If there’s something you need to check, put [a comment in square brackets] as a reminder when you do the revision. Losing an hour to in-depth research of whimsical cat pictures is death to word count.
  • Don’t delete anything. They are words you wrote, so they count towards your total for the month. Different people approach this differently: I [put unwanted words in square brackets], some people strike through the bad text, and still others have a morgue at the end of the document that they move surplus verbiage to.

7. You mentioned you write the kinds of novels that you love to read. Could you list a few of your favorite books or authors?

I read an awful lot of science fiction when I was growing up – the classic authors like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. And I am very sad that Douglas Adams didn’t write more.

My favourite authors now are weighted towards the British, inevitably: Charles Stross, Terry Pratchett, Iain Banks, and Neil Gaiman. I also like Neal Stephenson’s work.

Thanks for inviting me to answer the Seven Questions. It’s been a lot of fun.

Thank you so much for participating in this interview series, Duncan, and good luck with the next 30 days of writing! As someone who has never participated in NaNoWriMo, I especially enjoyed hearing about your strategies and the overall experience. For more information about Duncan Ellis, see his website, And check out NaNoWriMo’s website if you haven’t yet.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Plot, Seven Questions, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Interview: Speculative Fiction Author Duncan Ellis on NaNoWriMo Priorities, Plotting and Caffeine Consumption

  1. Liz says:

    very interesting interview, laura. but, then again, i always think your 7 questions are terrific.

  2. I really like #6. It didn’t occur to me that you can count words you wrote but don’t intend to include in later drafts. 🙂

  3. I don’t thnk I’ll ever do NaNo, but his three rules are good general rules, not just for NaNo.

    • Excellent point, Anthony! Duncan’s three rules for writing–never look back, turn off the internet and don’t delete anything–are especially useful for anyone plowing through a first draft. (I’m one of those people who keeps a “cuts” file of deleted passages just in case.)

      • I’m not that organized, but I do save pretty much every draft of everything. There was a chapter that was supposed to go at the end of A Sane Woman (novel #1), but it made the book go in too many directions (ASW is pretty tightly focused, that’s why it isn’t technically long enough to quality as a novel). Then it ended up, in another form, in a novel that’s sitting on the shelf at the moment. I may use it for something else at some point.

  4. Keri Mathews says:

    Great strategic advice here!

  5. Nicole Maki says:

    Excellent article.

    Duncan’s commitment to his writing is admirable and his tips are ones that are very helpful to writers everywhere.

    Good luck to writer’s everywhere, have fun during NaNoWriMo.

  6. Wonderful interview. I had to tweet about it! I’m going to share it on G+ now! Can’t wait until tomorrow. It’s scary and exciting at the same time!

  7. Emma Burcart says:

    I’m not going to do NaNo, but I like reading about the people who do. It helps keep me inspired and makes me think a little about word count and how much I write each day, but not too much. I am glad to see that I am not the only one who thinks coffee is a must!

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